Strategic depth

Published: April 3, 2015
The writer is a political and security analyst who retired as an air vice-marshal in the Pakistan Air Force

The writer is a political and security analyst who retired as an air vice-marshal in the Pakistan Air Force

When the military came under pressure in the period after 2008 with the restitution of what we call ‘democracy’ in this country — essentially civilian rule — the notion of strategic depth was the most popular means of lashing out at the military. Day in and day out, there wasn’t a discourse that recalled the absurdity of the notion that had been allegedly long propounded by the military and harboured by it as its real, secret aim in finding territorial and, when the critics were generous, political extension of Pakistan’s influence to provide it with the necessary safety against perceived threats. This is at least how most discussants from the intelligentsia, the media and the civil society, understood or enunciated the concept.

The pressure on the military came via different means. It was the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Bill first that brought the military to pitch against what was truly an American design to control promotions in the senior ranks, or the fact that the military would need to give an undertaking that it would not derail the democratic process if the funding was indeed to continue. It adduced the right riposte from the military and the two conditions had to be excised. It then led to the damning discovery of Osama bin Laden (OBL) and the insidious episode of Memogate, as was called a leak of the secret communication between the government (or its agent) with the US aimed to seek US support to corner a beleaguered military in the aftermath of the OBL and Salala incidents. Inevitably, over time, fences were pitched, opposing positions reinforced and a coexistence of the ‘other’ barely tolerated. That saw the completion of the first five years of restituted ‘democracy’.

Most of it had to do with ‘democratic reflux’ that found expression in a jaded PPP’s attitude towards the military. Unsure if it would be allowed to complete its tenure, or will it be business as usual when the military or its proxies pushed a replacement around two to three years down the line, it became a moment of achievement when the PPP did complete its five years. It is duly celebrated as such by the party. Now, though, another reality has begun to sink in which addresses the purpose of a government and not its structure alone. This is a welcome, reassuring and a healthy place to be on the road to assured civilian-led political dispensations. I digress, though.

The notion of ‘strategic depth’ indeed has its roots in the military. General Mirza Aslam Beg first expounded the notion publicly though it must be said that the concept gained enthused support during the Zia years with expeditions into Afghanistan at the behest of the CIA. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 and the first Gulf war brewed, General Beg, by now the army chief, pitched a renewed relevance for the notion. While he sent his forces to Saudi Arabia as part of the coalition against Saddam, he at the same time voiced his public support to Iraq and Saddam against the coalition.

That may though have been a reflection of his personal preference, but he soon offered another manifestation of the notion of ‘strategic depth’ by proposing a much closer relationship with Iran. This is also the first and the only moment when the notion was first intended to seek a physical refuge in territorial terms to relocate some critical defence equipment away from India’s expected reach. Luckily, this only remained a suggestion more in the realm of loud thinking, howsoever deficient in strategic reason. After all, in a war, a nation is meant to fight with what it has, not to hide away what it must be fighting with. (Having said that, it will be pertinent to mention that Saddam did disperse his air assets to Iran when the first Gulf war broke out, away from the American onslaught, only to rue the decision when Iran refused to return the aircraft when the war ended. In the second Gulf war that brought Saddam down in 2003, the American forces found many Iraqi aircraft hidden in sand to save them from destruction; ironic, for they were meant to defend against what had become Iraq’s tragic destiny.)

There has been a pervasive concern in the military strategist’s mind regarding the ‘lack of depth’ in Pakistan’s geography. But to situate that as an underlying logic for better relations with Iran, or Afghanistan, where the notion stuck for worse especially with the territorial connotations, is misplaced. Instead, what is of greater relevance is another veritable concern of being squeezed from its two narrow flanks by a simultaneous armed or political pincer aimed at dislocating Pakistan’s strategic focus. That places both Afghanistan and Iran as the two key nodes that must always deny an adversary an opportunity to use this space and threaten Pakistan’s vulnerability. Call it the two-front situation, or a nut-cracker, or simply having an unfriendly neighbour, which along with India, projects the dreaded two-front scenario.

Fast-forward to now. What Saudi Arabia seeks in Yemen is the reassurance of a ‘space’ that will not be inimical to its territorial, ideological and political interests. Call it ‘defensive strategic depth’, but what it aimed to seek by removing Bashar alAssad was expansive; more political and ideological as it competed against Iran for influence and domination. When the US envisions and implements its strategy of fighting its enemies away from its borders, the farther the better, and deploys across the globe to ensure that war never comes home, it too is working in what can be termed its strategic depth.

So strategic depth is good; it isn’t only a military’s fascination and thus a tool of strategic bashing, it is a politico-strategic imperative. Something that the diplomats and leaders are paid to develop in the service of their nation. The manner of gaining it though has been where Pakistan is frequently faulted, especially in Afghanistan. But today is another time, and Afghanistan coasts along fairly. Instead, the choice to prefer Saudi Arabia over Iran — which invariably is how Pakistan’s choice in supporting Yemen will end up being classified as — poses another kind of dilemma. Here is a variation of the strategic depth that Pakistan will be giving up were it to make a wrong politico-strategic choice. Going by the relevance of the notion of strategic depth and its essence in Pakistan’s long-term health — incidentally far more so in economic terms — it will help to have a friendly Iran. And that simply may mean a more balanced disposition despite how Pakistan’s ruling elite may prefer to express their preference for Saudi Arabia.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 4th, 2015.

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Reader Comments (7)

  • kami
    Apr 4, 2015 - 8:08AM

    Lets choose Iran.Recommend

  • Aussie
    Apr 4, 2015 - 9:14AM

    Pakistan’s “lack of depth” in geography has been much commented about by strategic thinkers. This should not continue to form the locus of our thinking. Lack of strategic depth in terms of geography can be more than made up by a virtual strategic depth with a strong, functional military alliance, as in the case of Israel-USA.

    Planners in Pakistan would do well to consider acquiring such virtual strategic depth by means of functional economic and military linkages with China. Our geography supports this notion. We should have Chinese bases in Pakistan, as we did for the USA, and seek joint ownership and training in advanced defense systems. For instance, the notion of a economically frail Pakistan ordering 8 advanced submarines from the PRC at 5-6 billion USD, is untenable. We should strive for the leasing and joint operations of these vessels with China in the Arabian Sea.

    The cost of defense systems has grown so exponentially that it is engaging in direct economic warfare to be compelled to keep up with India on an item-by-item basis. Joint ownership and joint training with a trusted ally with shared objectives is the way of the future. At some point the line must be drawn and scarce resources reallocated to developmental priorities.

    It should be self-evident that it is the caliber of the country in terms of the quality of life for its masses, its educational advancement, its technological capability, the robustness of its economy, its export performance, and above all the quality of thinking of its leadership which are the better measures of future survival against adversity. No amount of purchased submarines, ballistic missiles or stealth fighters can make up for this national deficit.

    — Shahid Saleem Arshad PhD SydneyRecommend

  • Toticalling
    Apr 4, 2015 - 11:29AM

    Supporting Yemen by words is fine, but Saudi have initiated the interference for other reasons. It is USA that wants to offset Irani influence in the region. Pakistan needs friends in the neighbourhood and Iran is and has been a friend for a long time. Iran also stands high to safeguard interests against American power games. As it is india and Afghanistan are not ‘friends and if Iran also comes in that category, things will look bleak.Recommend

  • Ch. Allah Daad
    Apr 4, 2015 - 8:42PM

    Pakistan is most hated country in the eyes of most Iranians. Pakistan’s neutral stance in Yemen conflict is not going to win them back, however Pakistan will lose Saudi Arabia and other Arab States. We should learn from history when our so called philosopher General Mirza Aslam Beg predicted Iraq’s victory in First Gulf War, which was no use to Iraq but it offended Kuwait forever.Recommend

  • Najam
    Apr 5, 2015 - 12:21AM

    @Ch. Allah Daad
    I know your ancestors are Arabs, so why don’t you migrate to Saudi Arabia. That way you will not have to look at us dirty impure Pakistanis. We will also be spared your pro-Saudi propaganda.Recommend

  • cautious
    Apr 5, 2015 - 1:27AM


    “Saudi have initiated the interference
    for other reasons. It is USA that
    wants to offset Irani influence in the

    Typical anti USA blather – long on blather and short on facts or common sense. USA has nothing to do with Sunni/Shia schism and it’s not USA who is bombing Huthi. It’s the Saudis who are asking for Pakistan’s help with Yemen – not the USA.Recommend

  • Varun
    Apr 5, 2015 - 8:20PM

    It seems a little strange, and the author doesn’t mention it, but much of Pakistan is really the ‘strategic buffer’ between North India & marauders from the west. And this notion isn’t new, was practiced all through the British Raj.

    Going by this lens, India should encourage, both overtly and behind the scenes, the emerging Pakistani efforts at coming to terms with its jehadi mess.Recommend

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